Tyler Cowen responds
Tyler Cowen has graciously responded to my recent post in an email. With his permission, I am printing it below. In the interest of accurately representing him, I’m going to post the full email.
“First, I stress that my view is about diversity of outcomes — often extreme diversity — not that things go well for everyone or even most autistics. I feel you are misrepresenting my views on this a bit. I’m not saying it is all “good,” by any means.
Kanner and Asperger recognized varying outcomes as important from the very beginning of this literature, although some of their points often get lost.
You wish to claim that the needs of “high-functioning autistics” are becoming central. Keep in mind that Jenny McCarthy and Autism Speaks are still dominating this debate in the public arena, not the neurodiversity crowd.
In my view we do not know the ratio of “high” vs. “low” functioning; there are probably more “highs” than we think though it is unlikely that they are in the majority. I also have reservations about the term as it is used in that manner.
I very much argue against the idea of autism as personality traits or for that matter autistics as “shy” (many of them are not, or they have non-shy temperaments which they cannot meaningfully express). I view it as a cognitive profile with varying advantages and disadvantages, not a personality profile.
If we look at the history of Down Syndrome, or for that matter issues of race and gender and discrimination, or transgender issues, greater recognition of varying outcomes has gone hand-in-hand with better treatment for those with the less advantaged outcomes. That’s a pretty consistent pattern and I believe it will hold for autism as well. It’s not either/or and it’s not as if the “high-functioning types” are wrecking some kind of current idyllic paradise for the “low-functioning types” or calling for cessation of aid. Quite the contrary. This is perhaps the one point I would wish to stress to you the most.
I would, say, wish to eliminate the often serious motor and coordination problems experienced by autistics. I’ve never met anyone, autistic or not, who wouldn’t agree with that. I would not, however, in general wish to eliminate autistic minds and I believe there is a coherent notion of such a mind without the motor (and other) problems. You might not disagree with that, but I’m not sure you are distinguishing between those concepts with enough clarity.
I worry about creating a separate category of autistics who are in essence labeled as “truly autistic, you are the people who have absolutely no chance.” First, there are some amazing success stories, even if they are a minority. Second, even if they can’t succeed by conventional standards, a large number of these autistics are extremely intelligent and have many other virtues and capabilities.
Also keep in mind that some of these people (and I mean those who can’t talk, bang their heads, have other serious life problems) wake up every day and type “autism” in news.google.com and blogsearch.google.com to read what is new on the topic. I worry about how they should respond to the notion that they are a kind of pure disorder and the possible implication (not necessarily intended by you, I grant) that in essence their minds should not even exist. Why don’t we instead adopt a more sophisticated terminology that recognizes a) cognitive profile as the key feature, b) varying outcomes, c) multidimensional capabilities which render pure definitions of “mild” and “severe” quite complex, and d) the need for aid and assistance in a great number of cases?”
And, in a follow up email
“Note that recent work by Patricia Howlin conservatively estimates that at least 1/3 of autistics have some kind of savant-like ability. So far this paper is being taken very seriously and she is well-established and well-respected in the area.
I do agree, however, that savants as a phenomenon are “over-recognized” in popular culture. My book mentions them only in passing, as I would rather people had a better sense of the non-savant-like intelligence abilities of autistics.
At some deeper level, of course, these abilities, and the possibilities of savant-like skills, may well be related. Most likely autistics have greater access to lower-level forms of information processing (and that involves both costs and benefits).
I should stress that this portrait applies to idiopathic autism but probably not to etiological autism as represented by Fragile X, TS, mouse models, etc., noting that most human autism is idiopathic in nature.”